International Centre for Ethnic Studies & Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education 2018
2.9. Economics and Business Rivalry Economics is a cross-cutting factor affecting ethnoreligious relations in all four districts but was more
pronounced in Ampara and Matara. In Ampara, poverty was a significant factor which was said to
impact relations between Tamils and Muslims. Two similar, yet contradictory, narratives on poverty
emerged from the interviews with both Tamils and Muslims. The Tamil respondents stated that Tamils
in the Ampara district are relatively poorer than the Muslims whereby many of them work as domestics
in Muslim households and businesses. They claimed that this results in sexual abuse of Tamil women
and the corruption of Hindu youth by Muslims through their use of foul and suggestive language.
They further stated that the war has crippled the Tamils both economically and politically, whereby
the Muslims are more powerful in the District. Conversely, the Muslim respondents stated that Tamils
have become richer after the LTTE because the diaspora channels funds to them which they use to
create problems for the Muslims. The views expressed by the Tamils seem to be at the level of
community perception, while the views of the Muslims is a general observation in relation to the Tamil
community in the North and East. These perceptions have not manifested into any large conflicts
between the communities, though small altercations over land have taken place.
Muslim-Sinhalese relations, however, are greatly impacted by economic considerations in the Matara
district. The Muslim women respondents stated that there are no ethno-religious problems in Matara
town. However, the spread of anti-Muslim sentiments is primarily related to business rivalry. These
rivalries are based on jealousy whereby Buddhists do not patronize Muslim stores such as Fashion
Bug. They stated that Muslims have faced losses as a result and, in response, they too do not patronize
Sinhalese shops. Furthermore, in relation to violence against Muslim businesses, the women noted
that no action was taken when a Muslim shop was burnt during the fasting period. They also expressed
the opinion that this was a planned act to disrupt the fasting period.
Such antagonism against the Muslim community could be attributed to fear among the Sinhala
community of Muslims’ territorial expansion within ‘the market’. In Weligama, where there is a large
concentration of Muslims, the Buddhist respondents stated that Muslims are strategically chasing the
Sinhalese out of the public market places and expanding their meat stalls. They were of the belief that
the urban council administration is also biased in favour of Muslims and discriminates against
Sinhalese as the Mayor is Muslim. They also expressed concern about the fact that there are only a
few Sinhalese shops left in the town and that there is an unseen power behind such attempts “to
capture this country”. They predicted that in two years, there would not be any Sinhalese shops in the
town and that the Sinhalese are increasingly becoming weak in Weligama as it is almost under the
control of the Muslims. According to the respondents, the Muslim community’s strategy is “to capture
this land” (Weligama/Sri Lanka) in three ways: land, population and economy. However, they were
also self-critical stating that the Sinhalese are not doing well because of their own laziness and that this
should not be a reason to attack Muslim businesses (Members of inter-religious forum, Buddhist men
and women, June 17, 2017).
The above fear of the alleged strategy to capture land, population and economy is reflected in Deniyaya
as well where Muslim ‘jamaat’ (preaching) activities, the legal expansion of a Mosque’s outbuildings
and commencement of businesses by Muslims are obstructed not only by Buddhist individuals and
monks, but also by the Buddhist community at large. An example is the forceful shutting down of a
Muslim business by the BBS and its supporters in the village and the installment of a Buddhist
businessman instead in 2018. More subtle methods of intimidation of Muslim individuals, in the form
of personal communication through letters, are also adopted.
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
- Inter-religious Conflict: A District-based Analysis
The discussion of inter-religious relations in Mannar in the previous section shows that inter-religious
conflict is based on relations and contestations of power, attitudes of majoritarianism among the
Catholics, a sense of entitlement among the Muslims, and responses of minority communities such as
the Hindus and Christians in asserting (spatially and symbolically) their own religious identities.
Furthermore, (the perception of) unequal distribution of and access, based on ethno-religious identity,
to resources, development schemes, and justice are also factors that pit religious communities against
each other. While these inequalities have unique manifestations in the Mannar district as a space with
its own identity, the case of Buddhist temples, speaks to the macro narrative of the deliberate
Buddhicization of ethno-religiously ‘other’ (Catholic and Hindu) spaces as part of the post-war
nationalist agenda. However, such Buddhicization could also be alternatively viewed as a natural
consequence of the war whereby the Buddhist soldiers stationed in the area fulfil a human need for a
religious space near their camps by erecting shrines for their personal worship.
In addition to these spatial and relational factors, an important fact to note is the role of political actors
and religious leaders in aggravating inter-religious tensions particularly between the Tamil and Muslim
communities as well as the Tamil and Buddhist communities. All of the respondents stated that there
is no animosity felt among ordinary citizens against their religious counterparts and that coexistence
is the norm and not the exception. Catholic and Muslim politicians were identified as the chief agitators
of conflict among religious communities for their own political gain. Furthermore, Catholic, Hindu,
and Muslim religious leaders were also cited as having great influence over their religious communities
whereby they can not only influence how people vote, but also provoke them to violate laws and
commit acts of vandalism. The zealousness of young priests and their sermons was also mentioned as
a reason for conflicts arising in localities. One respondent also blamed the Indian government (‘Modi’s
government’ in his words) for its influence in Jaffna and accused India for providing the statues of
Lord Ganesh which are being installed in the Mannar district as a strategy to promote Tamil Hindu
nationalism in the North.
In Jaffna, ethnic difference rather than religious difference was the chief factor influencing ethnoreligious relations with the primary conflict stemming from the war and post-war militarization of the
North. The use of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism symbolically in the form of hoisting the Buddhist flag,
resettlement of military families in the North and the construction of Buddhist temples to encroach
on Tamil spaces antagonize the majority Tamil community which is politically less powerful. TamilMuslim relations are also defined by land issues arising from the expulsion of the Muslim community
from the North in the 90s and the alleged interference of Muslim politicians outside of the North in
the affairs of the NPC. The purely religious tensions derive from the socio-cultural aspect of caste
which causes inequalities among Hindus and sometimes Catholics in the practice of and engagement
in religious activities which leads to confrontation, animosity, and bitterness at individual level. The
conversion of Hindus by evangelical churches was also considered problematic, but tolerated by the
Thus, ethno-religious relations in Jaffna are shaped by political, relational, and deeply entrenched
cultural norms, both of which operate to establish and sustain dominance and hierarchical
In Ampara, the Muslim respondents were of the opinion that politicians, lack of law enforcement, and
international conspiracies were the reasons for inter-religious conflict in the district. It was believed
that the BBS, which was said to have links with Norway and Israel, works on an international agenda
which is against the Muslims. Furthermore, when Muslims start to talk about their rights in relation
to inter-religious problems, the BBS tries to deflect attention to their claims by creating violence.
The respondents also stated that there are many racist local agencies inside and outside the government
that are working against the Muslims. The Department of Archaeology and the Forest Department
were particularly accused of working against Muslims and grabbing Muslim lands.
Ethno-political parties also cause religious tensions; though they are a voice for different religious and
ethnic groups, the respondents expressed suspicion over the (nature of) relationships among those
political parties. The respondents believed that inciting inter-religious tension could also be a plot of
these different political parties in order to garner a following. Individual politicians, particularly in
relation to the Manikkamadu Buddha Statue, were attributed to being responsible for creating issues
False rumours and news about Jihad groups among Muslims were also cited as reasons for interreligious conflict. Some of the Buddhist respondents’ opinions were also shaped by the news and the
media. They stated that the obstacles to coexistence include laws not being implemented, mistrust,
and land issues. They also echoed the Muslim community’s sentiments stating that politicians in the
area do not talk about coexistence and refer to it only when a government or civil appointment needs
to be made.
The Buddhist respondents also mentioned that while the general public does not have a preference
for any particular ethno/religious group, there is a prevailing perception that Tamils are better than
Muslims. However, the respondents did not subscribe to this belief. They also stated that the general
public believes that Muslims are “crooks” but argued that this does not correlate to their success in
business and that Muslims being better at business is a false belief (Members of village development
forum, Buddhist men and women, May 25, 2017).
The above reveal that at the heart of inter-religious relations and conflict in the Ampara district lies
the insecurities of the Sinhala Buddhist State due to the Muslims’ control over economic and
administrative activities in the region which manifest in attempts to displace Muslims’ power by
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
appropriating their lands. The Tamils, on the other hand, harbour prejudices against Muslims as
economically better off, culturally different, and view them as corrupting Tamil cultural values. A
shared source of contestation among all three major ethnic groups in the district is land as it is viewed
as a means of amassing power and dominance.
Underlying the tensions and the reasons for inter-religious conflict in the Matara district is fear of the
majority Sinhala Buddhist community of losing their ethno-religious identity which is based on
majoritarianism. This fear is exploited by politicians and extremist elements to incite the ordinary
citizen to react either through violence or other acts of racism.
The main reason cited for the general public’s susceptibility to racist influence was the Sinhalese
community’s lack of knowledge about other cultures. The Muslim respondents also agreed that this
ignorance applies to their community as well. The Muslim women said that since communities are
mixed in Matara Town, Muslims in Town interact with other cultures whereby they know about other
communities. However, there are Muslims in mono-ethnic villages in Weligama and Dikwella who are
isolated from other communities and sometimes hurt the feelings of Sinhalese by their ignorant actions
(Members of women’s group, Muslim women, June 18, 2017).
Language is also a cause for conflict in these mono-ethnic villages. The respondents stated that
Muslims in such villages do not know how to speak Sinhala properly and there is miscommunication
and misunderstanding between ordinary people. Therefore, the main challenges to inter-religious
coexistence are the language problem, lack of knowledge about other religions and their practices, and
lack of interaction among Buddhists and Muslims, particularly in remote/rural areas.
One example of misunderstanding and wrong perceptions is the belief that Muslims are supporters of
ISIS. This is also used as a justification for attacking Muslims. The women respondents asserted that
Muslims are against ISIS. Lack of knowledge about the Muslim community was also discussed in
relation to the contributions that Muslims make to the local community which go unacknowledged
on social and mainstream media. For example, they stated that ethno-religious problems decreased
after the severe floods in 2016 and 2017 because many Muslims contributed a lot to flood relief. The
Buddhist respondents from Matara town corroborated this view stating that Muslims are very humane
as they help the poor and the neglected and that they had been very helpful during floods (FGD,
Buddhist men and women, June 17, 2017).
In Weligama, the Muslim respondents expressed a different aspect of ignorance stating that people
do not know history and that is why there is conflict. They stated that those who do, know that
Weligama is a Muslim village and before that it was a Tamil village. It is the new people who don’t
know this old information who are easily brainwashed by extremist groups into believing that the
village is of Sinhalese origin (Members of religious institution, Muslim men and women, June 18,
2017). The Muslim respondents in Weligama were also self-critical stating that sometimes, it is their
own community that provokes individual Sinhalese to join extremist groups like the BBS. They stated
that a few Muslim farmers steal cows from neighbouring Sinhalese farmers. Muslim youth in the area
also loiter and play cricket on the street obstructing traffic. In retaliation, Sinhalese grab the thoppis
(caps) off Muslim youths’ heads when they are on their way to prayers. However, some of the
respondents disagreed stating that the grabbing of thoppis is a premeditated act by the temple in the
area. They also expressed concern about some Muslim youth groups that look to create problems.
The Buddhist respondents in Weligama explained their side of the story stating that Muslims always
organize cricket matches on Poya (full moon) days. Their use of loudspeakers throughout the day
disturbs the tranquil environment Buddhists need to engage in religious activities. They stated that
they feel so helpless in such situations that “Buddhists in this Buddhist country are losing their rights
to follow their religion” (Participants of FGD, Buddhist men and women, June 17, 2017).
On the other hand, the Sinhalese respondents also acknowledged and showed awareness of the fact
that the majoritarian attitude among the Sinhalese aggravates inter-ethnic issues. They stated that the
Sinhalese do not want their dominance challenged by other communities. They also stated that
Weligama is a site of conflicts and clashes that took place several times in the past. The origin of most
of these conflicts was personal disputes which flared into inter-religious/ethnic conflicts due to this
majoritarian attitude among the Sinhalese.
Such Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism permeates governance structures as well, whereby the police
and those responsible for maintaining law and order such as the GN (Grama Niladhari) fail to
intervene in times of inter-religious conflict when the perpetrator/s is/are Buddhists. Thus, Muslim,
Hindu, and Christian minorities expressed their helplessness in seeking redress for acts of intimidation,
discrimination, and violence against them. This culture of impunity is further encouraged by politicians
who stir inter-religious tensions by spreading hatred against Muslims. The Muslim respondents stated
that this issue goes unresolved because Muslim ministers are unable to do anything about it as they
have to protect their seats in Parliament (FGD, Muslim men and women, June 18, 2017). The
Buddhist respondents in Weligama also echoed the view that politicians instigate inter-religious
conflict to further their own agendas. Access to justice for victims of inter-religious violence is thus
barred by political influence and Sinhalese majoritarianism within the law enforcement structures.
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
- Conflict Resolution Strategies in Addressing Inter-religious Conflict and the Role of
That inter and intra religious conflict and contestations would be addressed by law enforcement
authorities such as the police is a logical assumption. However, in heterogeneous communities where
ethno-religious majoritarianism shapes the practices of state institutions, there is discrimination and a
lack of trust in the impartiality of state law enforcement mechanisms. This lack of faith results in
certain communities such as the Muslims in Mannar and Ampara placing faith in the impartiality of
the legal system seeking legal recourse for conflict with the Catholic majority in Mannar and Buddhist
state representatives in Ampara. Similarly, in Deniyaya, Muslims and Hindus experience discrimination
by the police who side with Buddhist extremist elements.
Thus, mediation or mitigation of inter-religious conflict is most often achieved by the intervention of
religious leaders in their individual capacities at local/private level. All four districts also had interreligious fora or committees (formal or informal) in operation and which were founded with the
intention of maintaining good relations between members of different religions. A common narrative
from representatives of inter-religious fora in Mannar and Matara was the lack of capacity to intervene
and resolve inter-religious conflict, particularly in taking immediate action at the site of violent
confrontations. Respondents in Ampara and Matara also called for politicians to solve inter-religious
conflict as they stem from larger factors such as nationalism and regional nationalisms which are
shaped by political motivations.
An informal body that concerns itself with conflict mitigation is the Mannar Inter-religious Forum
which comprises both lay and religious leaders who come together to address inter-religious problems
in the district. This council was instituted 20 years ago through the initiative of the Church and a
moulavi. The group was not active during the war, but at present, with the support of two NGOs, has
resumed its activities. The president and secretaries of the Forum comprise clergy representing all four
religions and the other office bearers are lay male and female leaders recommended by the clergy. The
council meets once a month and hears complaints regarding the illegal/competitive placement of
statues, land disputes, child abuse and gender-based violence. One way in which they attempt to
promote inter-religious coexistence is by inviting a prominent religious leader as chief guest for an
event conducted by a community of a different religion. They have also managed to solve an issue
related to an easement claimed by the church from a Hindu temple amicably. However, a
representative of the Forum stated that while they do function as a group, they do not have the social
recognition and importance required to intervene on the spot in cases of inter-religious violence. The
extent to which they intervene is in informing the relevant government officials of the
problem/dispute and withdrawing from that point onwards.
A challenge faced, as one older respondent explained, is that there were mediation boards and trustee
boards in the past and everyone respected the decisions of the board. Today, however, because of the
rift in the relationship between Tamils and Muslims, the decisions of inter-religious fora or councils
are not respected.
According to another respondent, at village level, individual parish priests or the kuru overseeing a
Hindu temple should ideally solve local disputes. However, the parish councils and members of the
kovil administration, who comprise lay persons, displace the priests and exert more influence and
authority in the resolution of disputes and decision making. This could also be due to the fact that the
priest/kuru does not have the time amidst other duties to address local issues or does not have the
personality to command authority over prominent members of a parish/administrative society.
Conflict resolution strategies adopted were also district-specific. All of the Non-RC respondents in
Mannar expressed a lack of faith in law enforcement and government officers due to the power the
Catholic Church has in influencing decisions. For example, a Non-RC respondent stated that in an
instance where Catholics had thrown stones at their place of worship, the police had arrested only the
Non-RC individuals and not the Catholics who had instigated the violence (Pastor, Christian male,
7thMarch, 2017). Thus, religious minorities in Mannar are more confident in seeking legal recourse to
solve issues, particularly in the case of land disputes. The Non-RC individuals also stated that they
recruit Muslim lawyers to represent them in court as they feel that Catholic lawyers would be biased
in favour of the Church. The land disputes mentioned above (including those between Catholics and
Muslims) had been settled through legal action though some of the judgments were not in favour of
the Christian/Muslim plaintiffs.
The respondents interviewed were not members of any inter-religious groups or councils expect for
one male who was part of a group that engaged in cultural activities and theatre to unite different
ethno-religious communities. This group was inspired by an inter-religious dialogue organized by
NGOs working on peacebuilding and conducts educational activities around religious festivals to
create awareness about the practices of different religious groups. Another female respondent was
also a member of an inter-religious forum. Both stated that there were no overt conflicts between
different religious groups, hence implying the lack of urgency for the formation of inter-religious fora.
This lack of urgency could also be due to the fact that civil society and individuals in Jaffna are still
preoccupied with post-war recovery and transitional justice whereby the need for truth, justice, and
reparations were foremost in the minds of the participants. Inter-religious relations, particularly
between Hindus and Buddhists and Tamils and Muslims were, thus, viewed through the lens of ethnic
supremacy rather than religion.
In Ampara, the respondents considered conflict mitigation as the responsibility of politicians. They
stated that Muslim politicians need to and should engage in dialogue with the government when there
is an issue. Merely making a public statement will not solve the problem. Some respondents stated
that Muslims had lost their trust in Muslim politicians’ ability to solve problems faced by their
community. “The Muslim business community can and must pressurize Muslim politicians to act on
their behalf. There is also a need for Muslims to empower civil society and encourage civil society to
come forward to resolve civil issues” (Participants of FGD, Muslim men, May 23, 2017).
The Buddhist respondents in Ampara stated that in order to resolve inter-religious conflict, people
should be allowed to build places of worship according to their right. Everyone should live in
harmony, learn each other’s languages, and interact with each other. They also stated that the solution
to the Muslim issue is to send them (Muslims) to Muslim countries (Members of village development
forum, Buddhist male and female, May 25, 2017).
Given the extent of mistrust among Buddhists and Muslims in Ampara, conflicts (particularly those
related to appropriation of land) are addressed through legal measures, which is considered an
The Muslim women in Matara town were members of a Muslim organization that celebrates a Peace
Day event annually. Their activities involve speaking to the Sinhalese about ISIS and informing them
that they (ISIS) are not Muslim. They contribute articles to a Sinhala magazine and respond to people’s
curiosity about the Muslims’ cultural and religious practices.
The Muslim men and women in Weligama, however, were critical of inter-religious groups, stating
that inter-religious groups form only when there is a problem. “People from outside come and form
groups which break up. They call us for meetings and give us lunch and money, so we go” (Members
of religious institution, Muslim men and women June 18, 2017). They highlighted the importance of
building links between different religious leaders.
The Inter-religious Committee in Deniyaya seemed more active in terms of attempting to address
inter-religious conflict. A strategy used by the group is to enable a space for both parties to meet and
listen to each other’s claims with close collaboration with the police, GN (Grama Niladhari) and GA
(Government Agent). However, when the problem is between Buddhists and a member of another
religion, the committee encounters problems in solving issues as their solutions are not taken up by
the authorities. Thus, the group felt that a solution for the problem of BuddhistMuslim/Christian/Hindu tensions could only be resolved at a political level as it is political will that
can sway extremist elements. They further commented on the importance of training in conflict
mitigation, but also the fact that the training is ineffective as the group does not possess the clout to
intervene directly in matters of inter-religious conflict. This is due to the fact that law enforcement
officials and decision-making bodies in the area do not share or accept the values of coexistence that
the committee promotes. The committee members further stated that they did not have opportunities
to refresh and update their knowledge and skills in conflict mitigation.
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
- Women and Inter-religious Conflict: Participation and Roles
The importance of equal participation and the role of women in conflict mitigation is one that is not
only overlooked in patriarchal societies at large, but also trivialized and reinforced by religious norms,
beliefs, and institutions. UNSCR 1325 emphasizes the importance of women’s equal roles in terms of
prevention of conflict, participation and inclusion in decision-making processes, protection and
respect of human rights, and relief and recovery. While these roles and entitlements are defined in
relation to armed conflict, it can nevertheless be applied to women’s engagement in inter-religious
conflict and conflict resolution. Thus, this section examines the status of women’s role in inciting
conflicts, their participation in conflict mitigation, the barriers women face to participate effectively in
religious/inter-religious groups or associations, their concerns regarding protection, and the ways in
which women might contribute actively towards promoting coexistence.
It is important to note that at the level of perceptions about religious others there were no significant
differences between the attitudes expressed by men and women. However, the degree and depth of
women’s understanding of inter-religious conflict and their participation in conflict mitigation varied
both within and across the four districts. Thus, Muslim women in Ampara were found to be most
active in inter-religious committees than their counterparts in Mannar and Ampara whose activities
were constrained by religious norms of the community. Similarly, Hindu women (despite their activism
and entrepreneurship in the social and economic sphere) were also the least involved in inter-religious
committees and kovil administrative groups due to the patriarchal underpinning of Hindu beliefs and
practices. Buddhist and Catholic women were seen to be most active in inter-religious committees,
though it was difficult to discern the extent to which their input is taken up by the groups they belong
to. Location is also a significant determinant of women’s agency Therefore, the subsequent analysis
focuses separately on women’s participation, agency, and vulnerability in each of the districts.
A general observation regarding women respondents in Mannar (irrespective of religious affiliation)
is that while they are aware of the inter-religious conflicts in their villages and in the district. Except
for the Christian women, they did not seem to have much influence in conflict mitigation initiatives,
religious groups, or inter-religious group activities. The Muslim and Hindu women interviewed also
did not see it as their role to directly engage in addressing inter-religious problems in their
communities, though the Muslim women were very vocal in their description of the issues and their
The Muslim women respondents did not consider themselves as having a role in matters related to
religion at community or institutional levels. When asked why they could not have played a role in
seeking a solution to inter-religious disputes, they said that they did not see themselves as being able
to initiate finding a solution. They did not have membership in any inter-religious forum, though they
were part of a WRDS.
The Hindu women’s groups were primarily concerned about the development of their villages, paving
of roads, livelihoods, and job opportunities for their children. Their perception was that Catholics
have better chances of obtaining employment in the Government service since they had contacts in
the ministries and that Hindus are marginalized.
The Catholic and Non-RC women were more active in church administrative groups and shared
strong opinions on inter-religious conflict. The fact that church administrative groups have great
influence over the parish priests (as mentioned earlier in the report) shows that Catholic women have
some influence in decision-making and contributing to or mitigating conflict as these groups consist
mostly of women. The present secretary of the Mannar Inter-religious Federation is a Catholic woman
and the federation includes female members as well. However, these women are ‘influential’ members
of society as they are engineers, doctors, or teachers. The level of participation of these women in
inter-religious fora is also uncertain. One male representative of the inter-religious federation stated
that the female members of the federation did not take leading roles in the activities of the federation.
However, they did engage in their feminist advocacy separately (Priest, Catholic male, April 14, 2018).
In Jaffna, Hindu women are not included in kovil administrative committees and in decision making.
They can voice their opinions in public gatherings, but not at kovil administrative meetings. Women
get involved in smaller kovil administrative activities such as clearing the temple compound. On the
other hand, Catholic and Christian women participate actively in church administration. Thus, of the
women interviewed, it was the Hindu women who were adversely affected by their religion. None of
the Hindu women interviewed were aware of, or were members of, inter-religious fora, though they
were knowledgeable about inter-religious tensions in the district. They were also very active in their
WRDSs and worked towards the development of their villages.
The Hindu women in Jaffna, however, expressed how they are particularly discriminated against by
their religion. Women’s agency and mobility are curbed by religious beliefs and customs when they
are either widowed or childless. Furthermore, the Hindu belief in astrology results in some women
being deemed born under inauspicious planetary conditions whereby they need to find marriage
partners who share the same astrological conditions. This results in families marrying such daughters
off without consideration of the character of the men. Such women live under unhappy conditions
and some are abandoned by their husbands and are cheated of their dowry. Despite these factors, one
respondent stated that women have gained power and have been thrust into roles of leadership after
the war, due to the death, injury, or disappearance of many men during the war (President of WRDS,
Hindu woman, March 8, 2013). Therefore, there is a need to engage women and empower them to
not only take up roles of leadership, but also to address issues such as caste, and traditional
discriminatory practices reinforced by religion that restrict them from full participation in society.
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
The Hindu women stated that their participation in kovil administration meetings is high in terms of
voicing their opinions, but there is little respect for their opinions. Women don’t engage in decisionmaking and they are not allowed to handle finances. It is only in the general meetings that women’s
opinions are considered. Women’s role in the temple is to collect taxes, clean the surrounding areas,
and serve food at almsgivings. The Hindu women also expressed their lack of understanding of the
conflict between the Buddhists and Muslims in Ampara over the claiming of sacred land. They
suspected the involvement of the military in a plot to make the country a Buddhist country. The
women also stated that it is men who instigate inter-religious conflict.
Muslim women in the Ampara district interact with other communities only when seeking services at
government offices. Young Muslim women are also not allowed to interact with others as there is a
fear, particularly among undergraduates in the Oluvil University, regarding conversion. There are a
few incidents of Muslim girls eloping with Sinhalese boys. Hence, the women’s reluctance to interact
with others. It can be said that like in Mannar, a majority of Muslim women are not involved in
activities promoting inter-religious coexistence at least in the public sphere.
The Muslim women interviewed in Matara town, on the other hand, seemed to be very active in
religious groups and were engaged in peacebuilding activities such as organizing an annual Peace Day
and writing articles to Sinhala newspapers in an effort to clarify the misconceptions held against the
community. A majority of the women were also professionals and were more economically active in
the public sphere than the women interviewed in Weligama, Mannar, and Ampara. Their opinion was
that women are better at peacebuilding because they have the patience to explain and clarify people’s
The Buddhist women from Matara said that women have gradually become liberal in the area. They
expressed the need to be empowered more. They said that they were familiar with different
interventions for coexistence – Divisional Secretariat office-level work and NPC (National Peace
Council)-led dialogues – and expressed disappointment about the government as it is not taking action
against extremism. They were of the opinion that change should come at attitudinal level to resolve
these conflicts. They stated that their experience of coexisting with other communities has been
beautiful and that the value and advantage of coexistence should be promoted. This was echoed by
the Muslim women too when reminiscing on the past (which they referred to as pre-BBS times). A
Buddhist male member of an inter-religious committee, however, was of the opinion that women are
not active in inter-religious committees and do not attend meetings as they feel they do not benefit
Young Hindu and Christian women from Deniyaya, who were members of an inter-religious
committee stated that they were able to participate equally with men in decision-making processes.
However, respect for age and seniority resulted in the opinions of the male members being taken up
more often. They expressed the concern that youth required a lot of training on leadership and conflict
mitigation in their mother tongue. As most training programmes are conducted in Sinhala, Tamil
speakers are disadvantaged. Another barrier faced by these young women was discrimination on the
basis of ethnicity by government officials, due to which these women were hesitant to approach
authorities with solutions to problems. They also stated that women were a reason for inter-religious
conflict as it is they who are most susceptible to conversion by means of financial assistance.
Awareness-raising among women, was thus highlighted as an important intervention to prevent interreligious conflict. Women’s experience of empowerment and participation in conflict mitigation,
therefore, varies in terms of region/village dynamics, ethnicity, caste, class, exposure, age, interest, as
well as religion. These intersecting factors either promote or hinder women’s access to active
participation and uptake of their opinions in inter-religious committees. Thus, Muslim women from
Matara town who were professionals and had access to mobility in public spaces were more
empowered in terms of meaningful participation than their counterparts in other parts of Matara,
Mannar, and Ampara. The Hindu respondents across all districts, while being discriminated by
religious institutions, also revealed that the extent of women’s participation is dependent on their
interest in the subject matter and prioritization of concerns. For example, the Hindu women in Mannar
were more interested in pressing issues such as infrastructural development and employment for their
children than in inter-religious conflict. Age and a culture of respect for seniority is also a factor which
affects the extent of participation of youth, particularly girls, as they deferred to the opinions of older
members of groups as a sign of respect. Finally, the economic status of a woman also determines her
interest in participation whereby her engagement is dependent on what economic benefit she receives
as a result.
Irrespective of these factors that influence women’s participation, the researchers observed that
meaningful and active participation of women in a collective occurred only when the group comprised
of the same gender. Thus, the Muslim women’s religious group in Matara town as well as the WRDSs
in Mannar, Jaffna, and Ampara were working and engaging with stakeholders on issues such as
capacity building, livelihoods training, infrastructure development, and loan schemes which are of
importance to them. Therefore, it could be argued that what hampers their engagement in interreligious committees is the inherent patriarchal attitude that women do not have anything meaningful
to contribute on issues of conflict mitigation, which was expressed by two male religious office bearers
of different inter-religious committees in Mannar and Matara as well as the Muslim women members
of a WRDS in Mannar (quoted previously in the report). The factors that impinge on women’s
participation in inter-religious committees and conflict mitigation, therefore, are multiple, intersectional, and context specific. These create disparities not merely between men and women, but
among women as well.
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
The discussion in sections 1-5 reveals that while inter-religious conflict manifests differently in the
four districts, the underlying causes or enabling conditions for tension and conflict remain the same.
Dynamics in all four districts show that at the heart of inter-religious conflict lie not only the statesanctioned agenda to promote Buddhist nationalism in the country and impunity granted to
perpetrators of inter-religious violence, but also local/regional nationalisms based on religious identity
among the Catholics in Mannar, the Hindus of the Northern Province and ethno-religious identity
among the Muslims in Ampara. This is manifested most overtly in the contestation over sacred space
and religious symbolism. This not only impacts the political milieu of each district, but also the psyches
of communities as a whole whereby, for example, conflict between Catholics and Christians in Mannar
is a result of the feeling that there is a rupture of the Catholic identity of the district. Similarly, but
across all four districts, anti-Muslim sentiments (and negative sentiments towards Christians to a lesser
degree) is due to the challenge posed by Muslims to the majoritarian imagination of the Buddhist
community which stems from state-sanctioned Buddhist nationalism. This rupture to the imagination
of ethno-religious purity or absoluteness of each district engenders a climate of fear of the small
(insignificant) minorities (Appadurai 2006) present in the community. This fear is fanned further by
economic and social inequalities aggravated by cultural and social factors such as caste and poverty
among the different ethno-religious groups. Inter-religious tensions and conflict are, thus, precipitated
in a psychological desire to approximate the imagination of ethno-religious purity or dominance by
challenging the threatening ‘other’. This challenge is primarily accomplished through the appropriation
of place belonging to the threatening ‘other’. Thus, in all four districts Catholics, Hindus and Buddhists
seize secular, ethnicized spaces and infuse them with ethno-religious significance by acts of renaming,
erecting religious statues, and constructing places of worship. On the other hand, the Muslim
communities in Mannar, and Ampara assert their identity and dominance through the purchase of
land and territorial expansion.
The post-war climate of the country is another significant enabling condition for inter-religious
conflict between Tamils and Buddhists in Matara, Jaffna and Mannar and Tamils and Muslims in
Mannar and Ampara. Much of the (alleged) actions of the military such as the installment of statues
of the Buddha in the Northern Province and the destruction, renaming and appropriation of Hindu
places of worship in Jaffna was viewed by the community as stemming not from religious insecurity
or rivalry, but on the basis of ethno-nationalism. Similarly in Deniyaya, the Tamil respondents defined
their relationship with the Sinhalese community in relation to their memories of the ethnic violence
in 1983. Muslim-Tamil relations are also mostly based on ethnic difference and fractured relationships
due to the expulsion of Muslims from the north in 1990, more than religion. Thus, conflicts and
violence which on the surface seem to be based on religious grounds, actually stem from inter-ethnic
tensions, but can manifest or be perceived as religious conflict. However, this important role of ethnonationalism in inter-religious relations whereby ethnicity trumps over religion, is also determined by
who the majority community in the district is. Thus, in Mannar, Buddhists empathize with Hindus in
the face of a Tamil Catholic majority and in Ampara, Buddhists express animosity towards the Muslim
majority by identifying with the Tamil community. Victimhood, thus brings different (and in other
circumstances conflicting) minority communities (ideologically) closer when they are confronted with
a significant majority.
While these overarching enabling conditions, produce different patterns of tensions and conflict in
the four districts, a consistent theme emerging from all Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, and Non-RC
respondents, irrespective of enabling conditions was suspicion, mistrust and/or animosity towards the
Muslim community. Muslim-Tamil relationships in Mannar, Jaffna, and Ampara are tainted by the
repercussions of the expulsion of the Muslim community by the LTTE in 1990. Due to the expulsion
Muslims, these districts have not been able to experience the organic increase in the Muslim
population whereby, on their return, problems have arisen in relation to access to land and reclaiming
of property. Political leaders who are pursuing their own agendas further aggravate these tensions.
However, the interviews (particularly in Mannar and Ampara) also reveal a common discourse of fear
and suspicion in the Buddhist psyche (and to a certain extent among the Tamils) against the purported
increase in the Muslim population, their economic prosperity, the proliferation of mosques, unethical
conversions, and territorial expansion.
While the conflict between Tamils and Muslims seems to be based on tangible economic factors such
as poverty (Ampara), economic dependence (Ampara), land (Mannar, Jaffna, and Ampara) and access
to resources (Mannar and Ampara), Buddhist-Muslim relations, on the other hand, are based more on
ideological conflicts at the level of perceptions that manifest in tangible outcomes. Thus, in Matara
and Ampara, the attitude of the Buddhist respondents towards the Muslim community was in relation
to their ‘otherness’ as members of a religion not indigenous to Sri Lanka and as ‘threats’ to the Sinhala
Buddhist identity. This manifests in the need for symbolic reinforcement of the Buddhist identity in
Ampara in the form of claiming land as religious sites and the challenging of Muslim attire and
businesses in Matara. It is also important to emphasize the ideological and moral conflict within the
psyches of the Buddhist community which is demonstrated by their attempt (during interviews) at
‘political correctness’ in qualifying their racist observations with self-criticism. It could be argued that
it is these moral insecurities, confusion, and lack of conviction regarding facts that make communities
susceptible to exploitation by agents such as extremist Buddhist nationalist groups, extremist religious
leaders, and politicians.
Geographical positioning and demographic spread of different ethno-religious communities in a
particular district are also important enabling conditions which impact ethno-religious relations. This
is reflected particularly in the attitudes expressed by the Muslim respondents. While the
actions/sentiments of the Sinhala and Tamil communities against Muslims in the four districts is based
on ethno-religious mistrust and insecurity, the Muslims mostly adopt a victim stance as well as
demonstrate a sense of entitlement, particularly in Mannar and Jaffna in terms of their status as a
persecuted minority in the districts whose rights need to be reclaimed and safeguarded. Conversely,
in Matara Town, the Muslim respondents demonstrated a conscious effort taken by the community
to construct a positive image of Muslims as seen by their acts of philanthropy and attempts to address
misconceptions held by the Sinhala community. However, this does not take place in Weligama where
the Muslims are more densely concentrated unlike in Matara town.
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
Catholic-Christian (Non-RC) as well as Hindu-Christian relations in all four districts and BuddhistChristian relations in Matara are linked to unethical conversions by evangelical churches. Intrareligious conflict (which was not a focus of the paper) was also a significant feature that emerged from
the conversations in all four districts. Intra-Christian conflict was more pronounced in Mannar
whereby it manifests in physical violence between both Catholics and evangelical churches and among
evangelical churches as well. However, these conflicts are at the level of the village and family. Mannar
is also an example of regional religious nationalism, whereby the district has been and is identified as
Catholic. This is symbolically represented in the presence of the venerated shrine of Madhu, the
administrative and political authority wielded by the Bishop of Mannar and Catholic priests in the
area, and the historical significance of Mannar which is linked to Catholicism. The emergence of
(reactionary) Hindu nationalism in the post-war context, characterized by the instalment of statues of
the Lord Ganesh alongside Christian statues as a challenge to Christianization of public spaces is a
significant development in the district that merits further study despite the fact that it is attributed to
political motivations. Despite this manifestation in Mannar, Hindu-Christian relations in Ampara,
Matara, and Jaffna appear more cordial and tolerant despite the issue of unethical conversions to
Intra-Buddhist conflict is also a significant factor which manifests not only among extremist and
moderate Buddhists and Buddhist clergy, but also operates within the psyches of Buddhist individuals
grappling with traditional Buddhist values and conflicting extremist influences. This is evident in
Matara and Ampara where liberal Buddhist respondents expressed challenges faced due to resistance
by extremist groups to their inter-religious activities and a sense of helplessness in countering
extremism of the mind.
Approaching the causes for inter-religious tensions and conflict (Mayer’s domains of conflict) from a
macro regional perspective, in Mannar and Ampara, encroachment of and contestations over power,
group identity and space by/among the different religious communities is enabled by the political,
economic, and psychological (e.g., fears of Muslim expansion, myths or misunderstandings about
religious others, and fear of losing one’s identity as a dominant group) conditions in both districts.
Similarly, in Matara, grievances between the Buddhist and Muslim community are based on contested
business spaces and group identity which are enabled by economic and psychological conditions. In
Jaffna, contestations between Muslims and the Tamil political administration regarding space and
place are enabled by political conditions. Intra-Hindu relations which are affected by discrimination
based on caste (i.e. group identity) is enabled by the cultural, economic and political conditions in the
district. Furthermore, Hindu-Buddhist relations in Jaffna are shaped by contestations of the
personality, space, and identity of the Hindu community by the military, which is enabled again by
The conditions in each district also influence the conflict resolution mechanisms and strategies that
are adopted. Mitigation strategies in each of the districts are therefore highly context sensitive. The
interviews reveal that conflict resolution mechanisms vary in the districts and are dependent on the
faith that communities have in law enforcement and legal mechanisms. It is, thus, interesting and
significant that victims of inter-religious disputes in Mannar seek legal recourse rather than alternative
dispute resolution mechanisms as they lack faith in the impartiality of Catholic local government
administrators. Conversely, in Ampara and Matara, there is a lack of faith in law enforcement officials
and legal systems and their will to resolve inter-religious disputes because the disputes deal with
challenging the Buddhist identity of the nation. Furthermore, dialogue around some of the issues
related to contested religious and archaeological sites take place at the macro level with involvement
of politicians and print and social media. This results in multiple understandings of the situation which
aggravates conflict. More subtle strategies of promoting inter-religious coexistence were also adopted
in Matara and Mannar through inter-religious committees and educational initiatives, but these
approaches were deemed inadequate or limited in their capacity to address and resolve conflict. The
interviews suggest that there is space for these committees and initiatives to be strengthened.
The role of women in conflict mitigation and/or propagation of inter-religious conflict is again
determined by the conditions in each district. The findings show that women hold strong opinions
(positive and negative) about members of other religious communities, are aware of the nuances of
inter-religious conflict in their localities, and sometimes take part actively in acts of intra-religious
violence. There is a disparity, however, in their agency and acceptance into/participation in interreligious fora and peacebuilding activities. This disparity is not merely determined by their ethnoreligious background, but also by their caste, culture, standing in society as well as geographical
positioning. Thus, while Muslim women in rural Mannar and Ampara were seen to be having less
agency in terms of initiating discussion around local inter-religious issues and devising solutions,
Muslim women in urban Matara Town demonstrated more participation in peacebuilding activities.
Similarly, Hindu women in Jaffna and Ampara were seen to engage more in local women’s groups
than their counterparts in Mannar. It is the Christian and Buddhist women who showed a consistent
ability to engage in inter-religious affairs, though it is difficult to state to what extent from the data.
However, irrespective of their levels of agency, it is important that women be engaged more in interreligious committees and peacebuilding activities as the findings show that they can be agents of both
conflict and peace.
To conclude, inter-religious conflict in the various forms described, stem from different levels of
encroachment of space, identity and power of one ethno-religious community by another. This is
facilitated by national and local enabling conditions which influence/shape the actions and inactions
of local government structures which are governed by racism and majoritarianism, and are exploited
by the private agendas of political manipulators. The findings of the study show that while negative
perceptions of religious others exist, these manifest into violence primarily due to the impunity
enjoyed by the ethno-religious majority in a district. Individual actions of government officials and
religious leaders, business rivalries, social disparities in class and caste, poverty, land and abuse of
social media are also central factors that facilitate the formation of misconceptions regarding religious
others which leads to conflict. Thus, reform of state governance structures and lawful administration
of justice would be the ideal in countering inter-religious conflict and violence. However, in the face
of a lack of political will for institutional reform, strengthening skills, and inclusivity among local civil
society organizations, religious leaders and inter-religious committees seems to be the alternative
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
though inadequate solution to addressing the issue of inter-religious tensions and conflict in the four
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Appendix: The Research Sample
Method Mannar Jaffna Ampara Matara
of the Mannar
- Field officer of
- Christian pastor
of the Mannar
- Two head
monks of two
- One civil
at a Buddhist
- Buddhist Monk
- Moulavi (man)
- Past president of
- Politician (Hindu)
- Representative of
the Ministry of
priests (1 man
and 1 woman)
- Catholic nun
- Buddhist monk
- Non-RC pastor
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
- WRDS (3 Hindu
- WRDS (5
- WRDS (8
- Muslim lawyer
and lay persons
- WRDS (5 Hindu
- WRDS (4 Hindu
servants, exoffice bearers
GS office (9
men and 1
- WRDS and
- Buddhist men
(8) and women
(12) from a
- Members of an
( 7 women
are members of
n (8 women
- Members of an
women, 5 men
- Buddhist men
- Hindu, Muslim
men (7) and
members of a
- Buddhist men
(8) and women
(2) members of
a DIRC in
INTER-RELIGIOUS CONFLICT IN FOUR
DISTRICTS OF SRI LANKA
The study draws from qualitative interviews and focus group discussions with women and
men from the districts of Mannar, Jaffna, Ampara, and Matara in Sri Lanka and unpacks
the intersecting domains of contestation among Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and
Buddhists including the agents and enabling conditions that fuel conflict. It adopts a
localised and context-specific lens to the analysis of inter-re